Many people who don’t even collect baseball cards have heard of the famous Honus Wagner card. It seems that every few years it is in the news with another record breaking sale. Who was Honus Wagner and what makes his card stand out amongst the rest?
HONUS WAGNER QUICK FACTS
Born: February 24, 1874
Primary Position: Shortstop
Primary Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
Career Average: .329
Career Hits: 3,430
Career RBI: 1,732
Career Home Runs: 101
Career Stolen Bases: 722
Nicknames: The Flying Dutchman, Hans
Awards: 8 Time NL Batting Champion, 5 Time NL RBI Leader, 5 Time Stolen Base Leader
1909 World Series Champion
First ballot Hall of Fame Inductee in 1936
As you can see, to say Honus Wagner is an average player who just happened to have a rare card is a tremendous understatement. Honus Wagner is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. His personality, however, was much more reserved than other players of his day. This is why he is known for his card more than his accomplishments on the diamond. Interestingly enough, his personality is also the reason for his card’s fame.
The original baseball cards, largely known as tobacco cards today, had nothing to do with the game of baseball. They were simply a marketing ploy to get people to buy tobacco products, namely cigarettes. Had another sport been more popular, we may well be seeing golf or tennis cards selling for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a seemingly regular basis now.
In 1909, Honus Wagner was featured on a card produced by the American Tobacco Company in what is catalogued as the T206 series. This series ran from 1909-1911 with print runs numbering into the thousands or tens of thousands for each player. Except for Honus Wagner. Less than 60 of his card are known to exist. At most 200 were produced, some of which may have been destroyed.
Honus Wagner never gave permission for his likeness to be used on the T206 cards and production of cards with him on it was halted soon after it started. There are two main thoughts on why Honus did not not give American Tobacco Company permission. One is that he did not smoke cigarettes and did not want to be associated with them. Honus himself chewed tobacco and viewed cigarettes as low class. He was also concerned that youth might purchase cigarettes in order to collect his card and did not want to contribute to youth smoking. The second reason is simple, money. Honus had retired after the 1907 season and waited until right before the 1908 season to sign a contract for double his 1907 salary. Then in 1909 the T206 card came out and Honus plays hardball (pun-intended) with American Tobacco Company over the rights to use his image. However, Honus had previously allowed multiple other products to use his image, so it seems unlikely he would have that much trouble reaching an agreement in this situation. The more likely scenario is that he believed in being a role model for the youth and did not want anything to do with cigarettes.
In 1933 The American Card Catalog valued the T206 Honus Wagner at $50 (a little over $1000 today). In 1991 Los Angeles King Wayne Gretzky and the Kings’ owner bought one for $451,000. This transaction really put the card on the map of collectors and the card itself became known as the Gretzky Wagner. It was then submitted to PSA and graded a near impossible PSA 8. A previous owner of the card would subsequently admit to having doctored the card by trimming the edges to create sharper corners.
Other famous issues include the Jumbo Wagner PSA 5 (MC), which has a thicker bottom border, and the Chesapeake Wagner PSA 1 (MK). Additional copies of the card have been displayed in cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library.
In October 2020 a PSA 3 sold for a record $3,250,000. The previous record price belonged to the Jumbo Wagner, which sold for $3,120,000 in 2016.